"The Merchant of Venice," like many of Shakespeare’s middle “comedies,” is often considered a problem play: the language is dense, the final courtroom scene fraught with near-tragedy, and for even the most casual observer, the language is steeped with anti-Semitic vitriol.
Modern interpretations, in a display of goodwill, tend to downplay the text (both Shylock’s daughter and servant call him “a very devil”) and frequently cast the most commanding and sympathetic actor in the role—perhaps hoping that the audience will overlook Shylock’s forced conversion to Christianity at the end.
It was with great interest, therefore, that I attended The Shakespeare Forum’s Merchant. The Forum’s credo is “Love is the Strongest Choice,” and there are many members of the tribe who attend the group’s Tuesday night, year-round open workshops.
As expected, this Merchant is a strong showing from The Shakespeare Forum—in fact, perhaps their best production thus far. The story is clearly told with an emphasis on the integrity of the text. The sets, lights, and incidental music all place us immediately in a Venice that never was (although the costumes are a bit more esoteric in setting the time). And if the directional grasp on the comedic something lacks, the drama is profound.
Joseph Menino embodies Shylock with a mixed weariness and wiliness that comes from years of persecution, while Dominic Comperatore as his rival, Antonio (“the merchant of Venice”) expresses his own simple gentility in the “love that dare not speak its name” that motivates the entire play. Michael Moreno as the rakish Gratiano is well matched in the always-spirited Sarah Hankins as Nerissa. And the youthful pages (played on alternating nights by Elektra and Ivan Birchall) are budding forces of the Bard’s best work.
But the show belongs to Hannah Goalstone as Portia, whose quiet luminosity—by turns girlish and stately—makes one feel the plight of a young woman constrained by her father’s will in matters of romance, and yet freed by her own invention in matters of love. The final trial scene is fraught with real tension as Portia delicately balances between matters of justice and mercy: issues which are still at stake in our own public court of opinion.
Unfortunately, while the show’s inherent misogyny is confronted and by that confrontation defeated, this reviewer would have liked to have seen the other inherent prejudices of the play likewise brought to the front—even in all their ugliness—in order to, as the Bard wrote elsewhere, “hold, as ‘twere, the mirror up to nature; to show virtue her own feature, scorn her own image…”
Instead, Shylock’s “Hath not a Jew eyes” speech had, alas, less weight because it sprang from lesser menace. The moment of his forced conversion was given more pathos—primarily due to the actor’s anguish and exasperation—but it was a moment come and gone too quick.
Love is, indeed, the strongest choice—but such a love in Shakespeare’s plays are always framed by that which is weakest in us.
The Shakespeare Forum’s Merchant is therefore a strong and beautiful outing, and we hope that soon they will embrace not only that which is lovely, but that which is bold.
"The Merchant of Venice" runs through June 14th at the Gym at Judson, NYC. Tickets available through The Shakespeare Forum.
Emily C. A. Snyder is an internationally published and produced playwright, as well as the Artistic Director of Turn to Flesh Productions. Her original five-act iambic pentameter play, Cupid and Psyche, was produced at The Barrow Group Theatre for Valentine's 2014. She is a member of the staff of The Jewish Week.
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